Friday, August 26, 2011

What Steve Jobs Did Well

I guess I should join the chorus of commentators eulogizing Steve Jobs' tenure as CEO of Apple.  Regardless of what you think of Jobs or of Apple products, you cannot deny that Jobs created substantial wealth for Apple shareholders, as well as for a slew of customers and suppliers.  Many of the latter would not even exist were it not for Apple.  There is an excellent op-ed in the WSJ today extolling Jobs' virtues as a man who created his own markets.  This, I think, is one of his greatest strengths.  He was not an inventor of much, but he was an innovator in that he could take new technology and find a way to make it palatable, even cool, to the everyday consumer.  This allowed him to reap economic profits from industries that had become commoditized for all his competitors.  He realized that he wasn't selling computers, he was selling a lifestyle.  This realization allowed him to expand from computers into MP3 players, phones, tablets, etc., because he was just bringing the value proposition he offered to a wider range of vehicles.  He has been compared to Thomas Edison in recent days, and I think that is fairly apt.  At least, it is in the sense that Jobs' genius was not in inventing technology, but in finding ways to market technology (and I don't just mean advertising) so that it would really add value to people's lives.

I had previously written that I thought Jobs had done a terrible job of preparing his organization for his eventual exit.  I believe this was true when he took medical leave in 2009, but I no longer think so.  Since then, he has groomed the new CEO, former COO Tim Cook, for the job.  Cook has effectively been running Apple since Jobs took on a diminished role in January.  This has eased the transition, and allowed the incoming CEO to hit the ground running.  The market knows Cook, the employees know Cook, and I think that Jobs will be effective in his new role as Chairman, providing some of his ingenious marketing insights, but otherwise staying out of managing the company.  As evidence of Jobs' effective succession planning, note that even though Apple's stock price dropped 5% in after-hours trading when the succession was announced, by the time trading opened the next morning, that drop had been cut in half.  That's as it should be.  A good leader prepares for his eventual exit so that the organization barely notices when he bows out.  Clearly everyone noticed, but I think that the questions about Apple's future will soon abate.  This is all the more remarkable given the suddenness of Jobs' announcement.

So, here's to Steve Jobs, a man who in the last decade and a half created, out of nothing, roughly $350 billion in shareholder wealth.  Not a bad track record for a career.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Two Great Perspectives on a Pretty Lousy Idea

In today's post, we get two for the price of one.  I am talking about a news story that brings us the wise musings of two capitalist ubermenschen.  The other day, Starbucks founder and CEO Howard Schultz (not one of our story's heroes) proposed that CEOs pledge to withhold their political contributions until Congress and His Majesty hurry back to Washington and start brewing up some deficit reduction.  While I'm all for lightening politicians' wallets, I have little faith that something like this would accomplish anything more than making Schultz feel less guilty for all the money he made charging too much for coffee.

Here is Paragon of Virtue #1 John Alison's take on the plan:
"If businesses and executives stop donating, does that mean pensions and unions will stop too?"
He makes a good point.  Businesses don't really donate because they think politicians are doing a good job.  They donate as damage control, and usually to counteract the efforts of...well...pensions and unions.  The article from Reuters also mentioned Warren Buffett's monumentally stupid plan to tax the rich more (real original, Warren).

Here is what the article said about Paragon of Virtue #2 T. J. Rodgers, Founder and CEO of Cypress Semiconductor:
Rodgers, who said that more than half of his income goes to the state of California and to federal taxes, is no fan of the Buffett plan.
The CEO, who invests his money in start-ups and other ventures, said the government would "invest" the extra tax money "in pork barrel projects of dubious merit, controlled by political rather than market forces" without added benefit.
"The fact is, the country will be less well off if they're investing my money instead of me," said Rodgers, who added that he has "been on the Schultz plan forever" because he doesn't give money to political candidates.
Well put.  It's nice to see prominent Objectivist businessmen getting called for their opinions on matters like this.  I think it's a good sign.